Does it really matter where an opera is set? These days, this question seems to trail Rigoletto. In recent years, opera houses have staged the story of the ill-fated hunchback in a modern day office building, in fifties New York gangland, in fascist Italy, in the Kennedy White House, and, let’s not forget, in The Planet of the Apes. Have these myriad settings yielded meaningful insights into the plot? None that I’m aware of.

George Gagnidze (Rigoletto) © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
George Gagnidze (Rigoletto)
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

For its part, Michael Mayer's production for the Metropolitan Opera tells this story of sin in a 1960s Las Vegas casino. With a blinding neon backdrop and male choristers arrayed in menacing circle of sharkskin suits, the production succeeds in conveying garish excess. But beyond that, the sets prove more distracting than illuminating. This was the 865th performance of Rigoletto at the Met. With such frequency comes an understandable desire to try something new. But a new location can only do so much. A handful of hackneyed libretto modifications (e.g. “Stuff your dreamboat in a sack”) did little for added resonance. Did the setting spoil the production? Certainly not. But it did seem like a case of misplaced focus. Verdi’s inexhaustible array of musical ideas shined through the glitter of Vegas decadence.

The principal singers were expertly cast, particularly the toothsome Stephen Costello as the Duke of Mantua. His debauched “dreamboat” provided him the perfect blend of drunk confidence. His “La donna e mobile” avoided cliche by exuding a sense of dark menace. Likewise, Štefan Kocán was deliciously devilish in his portrayal of the assassin Sparafucile, as he sang a shadowy, extended low F to pronounce his name at the close of his scene with Rigoletto. 

Olga Peretyatko (Gilda © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Olga Peretyatko (Gilda
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

Much has been made of the soprano Olga Peretyatko’s recent entrance into the Met’s pantheon of star singers. In this second leading role, her honeyed tone was an excellent match for Rigoletto’s ignorant daughter Gilda. Personally, she was a bit too sweet for my taste. I had trouble envisioning how she would fare as a more textured leading character. But, given the buzz that has followed her since her house debut last year, that appears likely to happen soon.

How about our title character? George Gagnidze was a practiced hand. He first performed this résumé-topping role at the Met in a 2009 staging of the Otto Schenk production. On Friday, he approached the part with ease but no lack of nuance. His tragic monologue “Della vendetta alfin giunge l'istante!” communicated the unadulterated heartbreak a parent who has lost a child.

© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

Much of Rigolettos profundity arises from its characters’ inescapable march toward doom. Characters who live in sin, die in sin; we know that from the first notes of the foreboding prelude. A curse is employed as a plot device to bring about Rigoletto’s downfall. In this production, the curse-giver Monterone was clothed in the garb of an Arab sheikh. Aside from the cartoonish ethnic stereotyping, this choice was made doubly odd by the bass Stefan Szkafarowsky’s frantic style. For a moment, he made the opera seem more comic than tragic.

George Gagnidze took a more serious approach to his receipt of the curse. (It took a court jester to reestablish the work’s integrity.) One of the set’s more effective attributes emerged around Rigoletto in Act III, when a series of fluorescent strips signifying lightning bolts flashed perfectly in time with the score.

Olga Peretyatko (Gilda) and George Gagnidze (Rigoletto) © Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera
Olga Peretyatko (Gilda) and George Gagnidze (Rigoletto)
© Richard Termine | Metropolitan Opera

Young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado’s Met debut came with this production in 2013, mostly to favorable reviews. This evening was no exception. He infused the opera with a careening forward momentum – an astute choice. Heras-Casado has an outstanding ability to perceive where the action is onstage. He sculpted swirling, sinister grace notes and zoomed in to the size of a pinhole camera as the characters began key arias.

In Verdi’s score, the orchestra behaves as a character in the story. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Verdi treats the singers as instruments. Either way, a successful reading of the work must blend vocal and orchestral lines imperceptibly to construct a devastating whole. On that count, this performance met the mark.

Having unveiled this production in 2013, the Met appears intent to make it a signature show, even to the extent of placing its own chandeliers in one scene. It’s a shame that the opera house didn’t get more return on its investment. I left with the feeling that style had trumped substance.